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Marco Rubio's comments about Muslims are getting to be almost as frightening as Trump's

(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Update: This article, which originally ran on Thursday after Rubio's initial comments, has been updated to include his discussion of the issue in Saturday's debate.

Republican presidential candidates are naturally running on a platform of challenging the Obama administration and its policies, and this leads them to criticize things the president does. No surprise. That's how politics works.

When President Obama gave a speech on Wednesday at a Baltimore mosque to discuss inclusion and Islamophobia, then, it wasn't exactly shocking that some Republican candidates looked for a way to criticize it. So I'm not going to pretend to be surprised that Marco Rubio took issue with the speech.

But Rubio's line of criticism didn't target Obama. It targeted the very idea that anti-Muslim bigotry is a problem worth confronting, implying that such bigotry is not just permissible but indeed serves an important function.

"Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque," Rubio said at a New Hampshire town hall. "Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s going to be discrimination in America of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam."

Rubio then compared anti-Muslim bigotry to friendly sports rivalries, and argued that Obama's speech was really the thing causing division. "But again, it’s this constant pitting people against each other — that I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly," Rubio said. "We can disagree on things, right? I’m a Dolphin fan, you’re a Patriot fan." He warned that Obama was dividing America "along ethnic lines and racial lines and economic lines and religious lines."

But what is really striking to me about Rubio's comments is the media's reaction, which has been fairly muted in contrast to how it covered Islamophobic comments from Donald Trump. That's not to say that the media is endorsing or ignoring Rubio here, but the pretty clear distinction in coverage shows how an establishment candidate like Rubio can navigate the media's unwritten rules and get away with participating in the tide of Islamophobia that has already become violent.

What Rubio said at the debate was even worse

On Saturday, at the latest GOP debate, ABC moderator Martha Raddatz asked Rubio why he had a problem with Obama's mosque visit. Rubio responded, "My problem with what he did is, he continues to put out this fiction that there's widespread discrimination against Muslim Americans."

Rubio then cited the graves of Muslim servicemembers at Arlington Cementary to say that American Muslims are part of this country, but that, "By the same token, we face a very significant threat of home grown violent extremism." For this reason, Rubio said he supported "positive relationships in the islamic communities in this country so they can identify and report this activity."

Rubio did not explain why, by this logic, it was therefore bad and wrong for Obama to visit an American mosque, and why Obama's mosque visit had the effect of deliberately "pitting people against each other" along "ethnic lines and racial lines." Raddatz, though I'm glad she asked the initial question, did not push him for a follow-up to explain, as she had initially asked, why he saw Obama's mosque visit as so destructive.

Rubio concluded his answer with some dog-whistling of breathtaking and Trump-level proporitions: he pointed out that Obama is being challenged by Christian groups but not by "Islamic groups," and that this perhaps explains why Christians, in Rubio's telling, are being discriminated against in America today:

I do believe it is important to recognize, you want to talk about religious discrimination in America. I don't think Barack Obama's being sued by any islamic groups, but he is being sued by the little sisters of the poor. We have facing Christian groups, traditional values who feel and in fact are being discriminated against that try to force them to vie to violate their conscience.

There is not a lot of room for error in reading between the lines here. Rubio is suggesting that Obama is personally tilted in favor of Islam, that he is personally tilted against Christians, that he is remaking America into a place that is hostile to Christian groups and their "traditional values," and that this is why Rubio is angry that Obama visited a mosque.

This is well in line with Trump's long-standing position that Obama is personally sympathetic to Islam in ways that make him suspect. In ways, Rubio goes even further, suggesting that it makes Obama actively hostile to Christian "traditional values."

It would have been nice to see him challenged on this point, but unfortunately, unlike, say, Jeb Bush's comments on women and military service, Marco Rubio indulging Trump-tier dog-whistling about Obama and Islam did not merit a follow-up.

Rubio's comments on the mosque speech don't look much better than Trump's

Contrast Rubio's comments on the mosque speech with those from Donald Trump.

"I don't have much thought, I think that we can go to lots of places. Right now I don't know if he's — maybe he feels comfortable there," Trump said of Obama's mosque visit during an appearance on Fox News. "We have a lot of problems in this country ... there are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque. I saw that just a little while ago, and so that's his decision, that's fine."

Trump's comments were given heavy media coverage, and were typically written up as part of Trump's long-running campaign to paint Obama as personally foreign or Muslim.

What's the actual difference between Rubio and Trump's messages, in their comments on Wednesday responding to Obama's mosque speech, and their potential for harm? It is not clear to me that Trump is in such a substantially different category from Rubio here.

Trump's message is that Obama went to the mosque because he is personally foreign or Muslim, or sympathetic to Islam, and Trump is on record as saying that Muslims should be treated with suspicion and fear and barred from entering the country.

Rubio's message is that Obama went to the mosque because he has an agenda to "pit people against each other" and to divide Americans "along ethnic lines and racial lines"; that this constitutes or contributes to a climate of hostility against Christians.

Rubio further seems to be suggesting that anti-Muslim bigotry is a non-problem on par with sports rivalries; and that challenging this bigotry somehow undercuts the effort to address "the bigger issue," which is "radical Islam," and that this is the real threat.

Rubio's implied message is not just that anti-Muslim bigotry is overstated, but that efforts to combat bigotry are worrying because they "divide" Americans and because they enable the "radical Islam" that threatens Americans — and which Rubio has previously said credibly threatens the destruction of the United States itself.

Rubio did not explain why giving a speech against Islamophobia is in tension with the "bigger issue" of defending against radical Islam. But it does not take tremendous imagination to hear the dog whistle that accommodating equal rights for American Muslims will somehow hurt our effort to track down terrorists, which itself suggests that all Muslims should be treated as second-class citizens.

If you want to be sympathetic, you could argue that Rubio sees combating Islamophobia as an unnecessary distraction. But unless you assume that all Muslims are at least potentially linked to "radical Islam," or that Islamophobia is a useful tool in fighting terrorism, it's not clear why Rubio sees the two issues as connected. The sympathetic reading doesn't look much better here.

These are, or would at least seem to be, some pretty extreme statements about American Muslims at a time when Islamophobia is becoming violent.

Now, Rubio has not called for anti-Muslim policies nearly as bad as Trump's. Whereas Trump called for registering all Muslims — a truly fascist proposal — Rubio called for "closing down ... any place where radicals are being inspired," including not just mosques but "a cafe, a diner, an internet site."

But the gap between Rubio and Trump's rhetoric on Muslims is narrowing pretty rapidly. Rhetoric is not the same as policies, of course, but given the way that Trump's policies flowed directly from his months of prior anti-Muslim rhetoric, that distinction is only so comforting.

It is also worth noting that many of Trump's policies became clear only when the media forced him to clarify statements that had at first been quite vague — showing how important that pressure can be, and how worrying its absence when it comes to Rubio.

Rubio's comments deserve media scrutiny

But really striking is the absence of sustained, adversarial media outrage over Rubio's comments since Thursday, including during the debate.

Yes, he got a debate question with no follow-ups, but there is no reaction like what Trump drew with his campaign's first forays into Islamophobia late last year, when, for example, he promised to bar Muslim refugees and immigrants from entering the United States and warned that Muslims pose a threat to the US.

Rubio's comment about the mosque visit is being covered like any other attention-grabbing line from a candidate, whereas Trump's past comments have been given days of sustained TV coverage.

Even outlets that did not overtly declare Trump's comments beyond the pale showed their true feelings in volume, and in how they shaped the story. Reporters fact-checked and asked follow-ups — would he also bar American Muslims from returning from vacations abroad? — that kept the story going and exposed the flaws in Trump's reasoning.

Reporters, rightly, called on other candidates to take a stand: Did they support or oppose what Trump had said? This forced not just Trump but the rest of the GOP field to either expose themselves as sympathetic or do the right thing and condemn it.

Few reporters, thus far, seem to be pressing the Republican candidates and the leaders of the Republican Party on whether they agree with Marco Rubio. They are not pushing for follow-ups on why it's unacceptable for the US president to visit an American mosque or what this has to do with combating "radical Islam."

Somehow Rubio, unlike Trump, has not traversed the line of acceptability. Yet when you look at how Rubio and Trump discussed Obama's mosque visit today, a side-by-side comparison of their comments will not, in itself, explain this difference.

Maybe, in the absolute best-case scenario, Rubio stumbled over his words — campaigning is hard work, and we all say weird stuff when we get exhausted — and did not mean what his comments seem to say at all.

And, indeed, in Trump's first foray into splashy Islamophobia, reporters did great work pushing him and his campaign to nail down specifically what he believed. There was a solid week of across-the-board media inquiry into Trump's exchange with a supporter who'd said, "We have a problem in this country; it's called Muslims." What did Trump mean by entertaining the supporter's comments? Did he agree? In what sense?

Reporters, laudably, worked hard to answer exactly what Trump had meant in the exchange, because it's important to know the specific contours of Trump's beliefs on Muslims, and because Trump should not be able to get away with dog whistling to supporters that he sees Muslims as "a problem" and then telling reporters it was no big deal.

This same effort has not been applied against Rubio's comments implying that visiting mosques divides America, that anti-Muslim bigotry is akin to a sports rivalry, and now, seemingly, that Obama is tilted in favor of Muslims in ways that create hostility to Christians.

I say "seemingly" not as a dodge or as a cover but because it is hard to know for sure because he has been under so little pressure from the media to clarify himself, at least compared to the pressure Trump faced. If he just stumbled or misspoke and made his comments seem far worse than he meant, he has not been forced to admit as much.

If Rubio's comments were as bad as they look, then the media's unwillingness to give him the same scrutiny lets him off the hook. If his comments were in fact innocent, then the media's relative inaction here leaves that innocence a mystery.

When bigotry is and is not allowed in American political discourse

What Rubio has revealed here, intentionally or not, is how a major political candidate can slip at least seemingly Islamophobic comments past the media without generating the same level of scrutiny and adversarial coverage that Trump has drawn.

Yes, there is the possibility for dog whistling here, which leaves the media with little to fact-check or challenge on factual grounds. But, much more than that, there is a difference of establishment versus non-establishment.

Challenging Trump is lower-risk for reporters because it puts the reporter on the same side as both the Democratic and Republican party establishments, both of which oppose Trump. But Rubio is part of the GOP establishment, which means that challenging him risks the appearance of one of the things that campaign reporters fear most: partisanship.

I am going to go out on a limb here: Trump's suggestion that Obama is personally Muslim is racist and bad.

But Rubio's comments were substantially worse. His accusation that Obama is enabling the "radical Islam" threat that could destroy America, and his argument that perpetuating Islamophobia is fine or perhaps even necessary, directly feeds into widespread fear and suspicion of American Muslims, which has become actively violent.

However, Rubio's message is communicated in dog whistles and barely veiled insinuation, whereas Trump came right out and suggested that Obama is Muslim, so Rubio's comments are deemed acceptable whereas Trump's are not.

American political media is very comfortable calling out lies like Trump's because it is a black-and-white issue that is easily provable: Trump says Obama is Muslim, Obama is not Muslim, therefore Trump is lying and this is bad. The media is also comfortable calling out overt racism.

Calling out dog whistles or insinuations is harder, because it requires the reporter to stake out an analytical position, however obvious, that can be scrutinized or challenged. And that, in turn, opens up the reporter to the most feared label of all: bias or, worse, partisanship. Political candidates understand that the media fears accusations of bias more than it fears enabling violent racism, particularly violent racism against a class of people such as Muslims who lack much political power.

The political media is comfortable — this part is key — calling out candidates who have been rejected by the political establishment, because the media thus does not have to fear being labeled partisan. This is part of why you see campaign reporters at mainstream outlets heaping open scorn on Trump, whom the GOP establishment has rejected, whereas other candidates are more gently challenged, if they are challenged at all, for making substantially identical arguments.

This double standard became particularly transparent in December, when Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. The media, again, heaped open scorn on Trump — how dare he praise a murderous dictator and American adversary? And, indeed, it was deplorable.

But mainstream political figures had been praising Putin for years, often in the very same language, and it never drew the same media condemnation. But the media treated those comments, though substantially identical, as acceptable.

The media's fear of "partisanship" lets people not named Trump get away with murder

The moment when everything changed came on December 8 of last year, when House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a speech denouncing Trump, saying he did not represent the Republican Party or conservatism. The day before, former Vice President Dick Cheney had said more or less the same.

This — the official condemnation of the Republican establishment — was what allowed political reporters to openly criticize Trump in ways they would never criticize other Republican candidates for sending similar messages. Indeed, the same day as Ryan's speech, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith circulated a memo, widely applauded by political reporters, announcing that it was now acceptable to accuse Trump of racism but warning that leveling accusations against the Republican Party as a whole would be considered "partisan" and thus not acceptable.

Any casual reading of the Republican primary makes clear that Islamophobic statements have been widespread, and that the rising tide of Islamophobia has been both driven by and expressed in forces much larger than Trump, including among establishment-backed presidential candidates. Indeed, in the Fox News debate from which Trump was absent, several of the remaining candidates and even the moderators jumped over one another to express the same message of fear and hostility toward Muslim Americans.

The effect of this is to allow political party establishments and their interests to dictate the boundaries for what does and does not constitute bigotry. When it came to be in the narrow electoral interest of the Republican Party to see Trump defeated, the party signaled it would no longer consider Trump one of its own, and this fact ended up shaping when the media will and will not challenge Islamophobia.

Trump's comments are racist because the GOP has an interest in seeing him lose. Rubio's comments are acceptable because the GOP has an interest in seeing him win. Islamophobia is deemed acceptable or unacceptable based on the speaker's proximity to the political establishment, rather than on the actual merits or harm of those statements.

Political coverage tends to suggest that Trump is the problem rather than the symptom — in fact, it encourages this view, by expressing open contempt for Trump but much more restrained coverage of establishment candidates. As a result, Americans are denied the opportunity to fully confront the wave of Islamophobia that is growing increasingly violent.

Watch Marco Rubio repeat the same talking point at Feb. 6's Republican debate

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